New Lawyers Enter A Tough Job Market

The good news for the class of 2011 law students from Arkansas’ two law schools is that close to two-thirds of them had a job as an attorney nine months after graduation.

That’s a faster absorption rate than for the class of 2010 (57.5 percent) or the class of 2009 (56.6 percent), according to statistics released by the state’s two law schools.

But a disturbing trend continued for the class of 2011. Both schools — the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock and the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville — reported increases in the number of graduates who were unemployed and seeking work nine months after they graduated.

UALR’s law school reported that 13 graduates out of 150 in the class of 2011 couldn’t find work nine months after graduation, which was the highest in years. The UA School of Law said eight graduates out of 116 were unemployed, which was the most since the class of 2007.

John DiPippa, the dean of the Bowen School, told Arkansas Business last week that about 85 to 90 percent of the graduates find jobs — although not all are working as attorneys.

“Typically, a lot of our students end up taking jobs in nonlegal fields, where their [juris doctor degree] is helpful, [but] it’s not required,” said DiPippa, who will step down as dean at the end of June. Paula Casey has been named interim dean. “So historically, we’ve always placed students in those areas, not because there weren’t any law jobs available, but that’s where the students wanted to go.”

Some law firms in Arkansas are reporting they are hiring new graduates, although not at the pace that they were before the Great Recession in 2008.

“It’s certainly not a great market right now,” said Harry Hamlin, managing director of Mitchell Williams Selig Gates & Woodyard PLLC of Little Rock. “I’ve heard anecdotal stories about top graduates that normally would have had an offer a year before graduating [and] they’re still looking in May.”

Mitchell Williams in August hired two students while they were still in law school and they’ll start soon at the firm. “That’s less than what we had historically, but up from what we’ve had in the last couple of years,” Hamlin said.

Some law school graduates across the country are having a tough time finding work as attorneys even as they are saddled with law school debt. About 75 law school graduates who haven’t found jobs in the legal field have sued more than a dozen universities in the last year, according to Jesse Strauss, an attorney in New York who is representing the students.

Arkansas’ law schools aren’t on the list of the schools that have been sued.

The graduates alleged the law schools committed misrepresentation by reporting that about 90 percent of their graduates had a job within nine months of graduation and what the salaries will be, said Strauss.

He said the sluggish economy wasn’t the sole cause of the grads not finding attorney work either.

“What happened is we’ve been producing way too many lawyers for years and years,” Strauss said. “Each year we qualify about 45,000 [graduates] to be lawyers, … but the Bureau of Labor Statistics said there’s only about 26,000 openings per year.” (See also Law Grads Sue Their Former Schools)

Job Openings

Although the job market is tight for law school graduates, jobs are out there, said Stacy Leeds, dean of the UA School of Law at Fayetteville. Some new graduates might have to move or take a job that isn’t their first choice, she said.

UALR’s DiPippa suggested that some rural areas in Arkansas could be promising for a young attorney.

“There are a lot of opportunities for people to go out and start their own practice,” he said. “In some counties there may be one lawyer for the entire county.”

And some firms are hiring. The Kutak Rock law firm of Omaha, Neb., which has offices in Little Rock and Fayetteville, has a 2011 graduate starting in-state in August.

“We don’t hire every year, but we try and do it as needs come,” said Terry Pool, Kutak’s managing partner for Arkansas.

Still, Pool has noticed the job market has shifted for law school graduates.

“It’s not like it used to be, where there’s kind of a plethora of jobs out there when you got out,” he said. “It’s not like that anymore. You have to work at it.”

The students who finish at the top of the class shouldn’t have a problem landing work, Pool said.

And there’s hope: About half the attorneys in Arkansas are baby boomers and will be retiring soon, said the UA’s Stacy Leeds.

“So regardless of what happens with the economy, there’s just going to be some natural turnover in the market that’s going to make going to law school still worth people’s while,” she said.

Harry Hamlin, at Mitchell Williams, said baby boomers were “a huge industry-wide issue right now.”

He said about 20 to 30 percent of the firm’s 77 attorneys were over 60.

“We’ve been looking at that in our firm for the last several years in terms of succession issues,” Hamlin said.

Working Life

Graduates have found jobs — even if they’ve had to create them.

Blain Overstreet, 29, said that he was fortunate because a summer clerkship at Jack Nelson Jones & Bryant in Little Rock led to a job offer even before he graduated from the UA School of Law in 2009.

“Luckily, they did have an opening,” he said. “But I do know several people that had difficulty finding spots.”

Michael Salorio, 34, of El Centro, Calif., left Southern California to attend law school in Little Rock in 2008. “Law school in California was too expensive,” Salorio said.

He said his three years at the Bowen School of Law cost him about $62,000, which would have been the bill for one year at a law school in California. At Berkeley Law at the University of California, the total cost to attend the 2011-12 school year was $73,886.

In-state tuition at both law schools in Arkansas is about $12,000 a year.

“I guess I got a deal on law school,” Salorio said.

After graduating in 2011, Salorio returned to El Centro, which is near the Mexican border, to be a solo practitioner. That was his plan all along.

“I had a different experience,” Salorio said. “I know several of my classmates that struggled to find work.”

He said he was squeaking out a profit running his own law office, where he is the only employee.

By the end of the year, Salorio said, he expects to have a profit of between $30,000 and $40,000.

“It takes years to build up a practice,” he said.